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How far was the French Revolution the result of a systemic crisis of the Ancien Regime or a failure of leadership among the ruling elites?

How far was the French Revolution the result of a systemic crisis of the Ancien Regime or a failure of leadership among the ruling elites?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Aoife Dowling. Originally submitted for Ireland, Europe and the Wider World II at University College Cork, with lecturer Michael Cosgrave in the category of Historical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Aoife Dowling. Originally submitted for Ireland, Europe and the Wider World II at University College Cork, with lecturer Michael Cosgrave in the category of Historical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
 1
How far was the French Revolution the result of a systemic crisis of the AncienRegime or a failure of leadership among the ruling elites?The French Revolution marked the drastic toppling of two long
 – 
running French powers; the
„Ancien Régime‟ and the Monarchy.
The Revolution was the result of the culmination of public dissatisfaction as numerous economic, social and political factors came together toincrease suffering and resentment of the middle and lower classes, as well as seriouslychallenge the power and relevance of the Ancien Regime
1
. Among these factors wereinflation, unemployment, debt, famine, the rise of the bourgeoisie, excesses of the court,social inequality and the influence of the American Revolution. The public dissatisfactionwhich resulted from these conditions prompted mobilisation of the people to revolutionaryaction. This essay will discuss whether the conditions and the revolutionary events whichfollowed were all
 part of a systemic crisis of the „Ancien Régime‟, as Ma
rxist scholarsgenerally argue, or were the result of a failure of leadership of Louis XVI and his ministers,as many Revisionist scholars would claim.From a Marxist standpoint, the economic, social and political factors which prompted theFrench Revolution could be seen to be part of a systemic, even inevitable, crisis of a flawedsystem doomed to failure. Firstly, was the economic crisis (which prompted revolution) afailure of the Ancien Régime? The two were certainly linked in the minds of the sufferingpeasants. As Albert Soboul writes in his book 
The French Revolution 1787 
 – 
1799,
 In the popular imagination the twin forces of the economic crisis and the aristocraticplot were closely associated, and the aristocrats were accused of hoarding grain inorder to crush the Third Estate.
2
 Although it is unlikely that the economic crisis was directly caused by the failure of the
Ancien Régime, it could be argued that the system‟s attempts to deal with the problem only
highlighted and deepened inequality in French society, furthering popular resentment towards
the aristocracy and thus sparking the French Revolution. The “burden of taxationfell...disproportionately on those least able to pay...the rich were able to avoid it.”
3
AsMathiez, author of 
The French Revolution,
writes, “the peasants were the beasts of burden of society.”
4
In contrast, a Revisionist scholar might argue that the stagnation of the economyand its failure to recover were the fault of the crown and other ruling elites. Thoughunpreventable natural events undoubtedly contributed to the economic crisis, some of theblame for its escalation could be placed on the decisions and actions of Louis XVI and other
1
 
Albert Soboul, trans. Alan Forrest;
The French Revolution 1787 
 – 
1799;
NLB Press; London; 1974. 31.
 
2
 
Ibid. 137.
3
 
William Doyle;
The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction;
Oxford University Press; Oxford; 2001.26.
4
 
Albert Mathiez, trans. Alison Phillips;
The French Revolution;
Williams and Norgate; London; 1927.14.
 
 2
leading nobles. The decision by Louis XVI to become involved in the Seven Years War andthe American War of Independence proved costly; the American War may have cost up to abllion
livres.
5
The finance minister Jacques Necker funded the American war by internationalloans at very high interest.
6
For this, and for his failure to inspire public confidence in the
financial system, Necker has been called “the chief architect of the monarchy‟s financialcollapse”
7
. The unequal distribution of taxation, too, could be blamed on these leaders. AsFrancois Furet writes in
 Interpreting the French Revolution,
the fundamental crisis of theeighteenth century that contributed to the Revolution was that;Neither the king of France nor the nobility came forward with a policy or a set of institutions that might have integrated the State and the ruling society around aminimum of consensus. In the absence of such consensus, the action taken by themonarchy in dealing with the central problem of taxation wavered between despotismand capitulation.
8
 
The ostentation of the king‟s court
provided a visual demonstration of the inequality of wealth. An extravagant number of unnecessary servants were unemployed; in the late 1780s
the court had fifteen thousand „gilded idlers‟ who cost the state an exorbitant forty million
livres
per annum. Public dissent was at its peak.As we have seen, social inequality became more apparent during the financial crisis. Thisinequality had been present before, however. It was most definitely a trigger to revolution. AsMarxist scholars argue, social inequality was surely an aspect of the Ancien Régime. Theshift in attitude of the middle and lower classes that sparked revolution could therefore beseen as systemic crisis. However, King Louis XVI
‟s inadequate response to the social unease
and change worsened the situation and ensured it led to revolution. The rise of theBourgeoisie
and resentment of the monarchy was a natural response to a system in which “anabsolutist monarchy legitimated all roles and recognised no sphere of private action”
9
Theconflict between the nobles and the people could also be seen as part of an inevitable process.The nobles tried desperately to hold on to the privileged professions and feudal rights whichthey had enjoyed under the Ancien Régime, while the lower classes were reacting against that
5
 
Richard Bonney;
The Limits of Absolutism in Ancien R.égime France;
Ashgate Publishing; Hampshire; 1995.156
6
 
Munro Price;
The Fall of the French Monarchy: Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette and the Baron de Breteuil;
 Macmillan Press; London; 2002. 22.
7
 
Ibid. 22.
8
 
Francois Furet, trans. Elborg Forster;
 Interpreting the French Revolution;
Cambridge University Press;Cambridge; 1977. 113.
9
 
Ken Alder; „Making Things the Same: Representation, Tolerance and the End of the Ancien Régime inFrance‟;
Social Studies of Science;
Vol. 28, No. 4 August 1998. 501
 
 3
Régime which had been so discriminating
10
. Disregard for the ordinary people, the
ignobilevulgus
(common herd), was a major feature of the Ancien Régime as a system;For the quest for
 fama
...coexisted with a classically derived disdain for the plaudits of the
ignobile vulgus,
„the common herd‟...‟popularity‟ [was] a word that continued to
have strongly pejorative connotations well into the eighteenth century.
11
 Though social change may have been a systemic response to the social set
 – 
up of the AncienRégime, King Louis XVI did not deal with the situation efficiently. As Timothy Tackettwrites;The nobles and the upper-class commoners were converging...when the two groupsfell into conflict in 1789 it was either a kind of accidental aberration...or a failure of imagination and leadership.
12
 Louix XVI appeared inconsistent and indecisive in his attitude towards these new
revolutionary „upper – 
 
class commoners‟. In his article „Louis XVI and Gustavus III: SecretDiplomacy and Counter Revolution‟, historian Munro Price makes the point that the king‟sattitude towards the Revolution is an issue which is “far from being resolved”.
13
He claims
that the king‟s unclear and apparently contradictory stance is because of the “dichotomy
between the actions Louis XVI was forced to take to satisfy the National Assembly and thepeople of Paris, and the very different views he transmitted to his fellow-
monarchs”
14
The
king advocated „enlightened absolutism‟ and was originally in favour of giving greater 
representation to the third estate, yet he failed to do so.
15
At the Estates General of 1789, twovastly different draft declarations were drawn up beforehand
16
, demonstrating seriousindec
ision on the king‟s part. He would continue to display this indecision and inconsistency
of policy. Had he adopted a single strong policy towards the social shifts, revolution wouldnot have so easily unfolded.Was it failure of leadership or systemic disillusion with the existing order that brought aboutpolitical change? Changing political ideology altered the views and expectations of peopletowards government. Many Marxist (and non
 – 
Marxist) historians would argue that the
10
 
Albert Mathiez, trans. Alison Phillips;
The French Revolution;
Williams and Norgate; London; 1927. 38.
 
11
 
John Adamson; „The Making of the Ancien Régime Court 1500 – 
 
1700‟;
The Princely Courts of Europe 1500
 – 
1700;
ed. John Adamson; Weidenfield and Nicolson; London; 1999. 34.
12
 
Timothy Tackett ; „Nobles and Third Estate in the Revolutionary Dynamic of the National Assembly, 1789 – 
 
1790‟;
The American Historical Review;
Vol. 94; No. 2; University of Chicago Press; 1989. 271.
13
 
Munro Price; „Louis XVI and
Gustavus III: Secret Diplomacy and Counter-Revolution, 1791-1792
‟;
The Historical Journal;
Vol. 42; No. 2; Cambridge University Press; 1999.p 435
14
 
Ibid. 436.
15
 
Munro Price;
The Fall of the French Monarchy: Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette and the Baron de Breteuil;
 Macmillan Press; London; 2002. 58.
16
 
Ibid. 62.

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